When Kojo Griffin goes to New York City, he usually takes a bus and a train from the airport to his cousin's apartment in Brooklyn. But not on Sept. 7.
In town for his first solo show in the Big Apple, the 30-year-old self-taught artist was approaching baggage claim at LaGuardia Airport when he saw a man holding up a sign marked "GRIFFIN." It was something he'd noticed before in movies and at airports -- a private driver waiting for some bigwig to arrive -- only this time Griffin was the bigwig; the driver was waiting for him.
Escorted to a town car, Griffin was driven into Manhattan, where he was delivered to the entrance of the chic Hudson Hotel in Midtown.
"Wow," the artist recalls thinking at the time. "This is kind of cool."
Griffin, who may be the most acclaimed young artist now living in Atlanta, isn't much of a socializer; he doesn't like crowds. He spends his time close to his home in East Point or his warehouse studio in West End. Except for his wife Nitzanah, his sons Zion and Kether and a few artist and musician friends, he usually prefers the company of art supplies to people. Clad in baggy pants and a floppy jacket that look like they came from an Army surplus store, the soft-spoken artist doesn't so much project an image when he walks into a room as permeate it with a warm, quiet gravity.
That wasn't always the case. Growing up in the middle-class suburbs of Boston, Griffin was a troubled, withdrawn child. "I was much bigger than everybody, not just in terms of my weight but my height. I just kept to myself a lot, and I suffered from a lot of depression as a kid. So it was, like, art and drawing was what I did. It was the thing I could do, so people encouraged it."
He split his time between his mom's house in the Jewish neighborhood of Brookline and his dad's house in the black neighborhood of Roxbury, and he had a hard time reconciling those two worlds. "I didn't really fit in with the white Jewish kids because I was different, and I was never able to forget that I was black. And I didn't exactly fit in with a lot of the black kids either, in terms of my likes and dislikes and who I am."
Griffin overcame some of his insecurities in high school. He played football and basketball, and started getting invited to parties, thanks in part to a popular cousin. But he still felt like an outsider, and he resented those who he thought judged him.
"A child gets to a certain point where you sort of have a secret anger against people. It's like, 'Well fuck you then, if you don't want to accept me.'"
Griffin gravitated toward graffiti art, which proved to be the perfect outlet. At first, he didn't have the confidence to throw his work onto walls; he worked for years in sketchbooks. "I spent my time just trying to develop a sense of that style," he says, "how to work within that style, how to play within that style."
His cerebral approach to graffiti may have been more productive than spraying Krylon on the walls of Boston. He spent those high school years contemplating what makes art good, studying other artists' murals, breaking them down, and analyzing what worked and what didn't. He began, in an informal way at a fairly early age, to develop an understanding and appreciation for line quality and composition.
But Griffin didn't think art was his future. In 1990, he moved to Atlanta to study psychology at Morehouse College. Away from home for the first time, he did what most college freshmen do, slack off and party. But he continued with graffiti, only now he was spray-painting murals on abandoned buildings and on walls in vacant lots. In a discipline where artists are judged by their peers, Griffin began to hone a competitive edge that would prove to serve him well in the world of fine art.
"Because there's not any money involved in graffiti, it is totally dependent upon how good your work is. That's part of that system of recognition," he explains. "However well known you are, however good your work is, determines how soon your work is covered up [by other graffiti artists] and how long it gets to ride."
Eventually Griffin began picking up paying jobs. He painted murals and signs at places like Patti Hut, Ear Wax and Marco's Pita. He made club flyers and had a disastrous stint designing and silk-screening T-shirts. But he also made paintings, and it started to dawn on him that perhaps his future was in art after all.
Then, one day in 1991, Griffin learned he was going to be a father.
"I always mark off the time that I've been very serious about my work by the age of my son," he says, "because it was when my son was on the way that I was struck with the realization that I had to really decide what I was going to do with my life. I was in college, and I was studying psychology. My plan was to be a child psychologist eventually. But ... having a baby on the way -- it sort of forces you to re-evaluate who you are. All the sudden, everything seems much more serious, so that was when I buckled down. I wanted to finish school, but I was like, I think I want to be an artist."
An encounter in a graffiti-covered train tunnel by Piedmont Park drove the point home even stronger. While Griffin was painting, a man came out of a store and started snapping pictures. "I'm thinking, what the hell? I start to go after him, and all the sudden there's a cop at one end of the bridge and a cop at the other end of the bridge, and I'm in the middle. Obviously, I wasn't getting away."
Griffin was handcuffed, put in the back of a patrol car and on his way to jail when he began to plead his case. There must have been something about the tall, serious young man calmly explaining that he wasn't a vandal but an artist that convinced the police officer to give Griffin another chance. As it happened, the cop was a budding children's book author who'd hired an artist to provide the illustrations.
He pulled the squad car over, retrieved his work-in-progress from the trunk and asked Griffin for advice. ("They were baaaad," Griffin recalls of the illustrations.) After Griffin gave the officer pointers on perspective and composition, the officer drove Griffin around the corner and let him go.
Griffin eventually completed his undergraduate degree in psychology, but by then it was irrelevant. He was working at Pearl Art Supplies at the time and had become friends with many local artists, including Charles Nelson, a formally educated painter who helped persuade Griffin to abandon commercial work for a career in fine art.
Griffin had nearly failed the one formal art class he'd taken, and he worried that he didn't know enough to jump into fine art as a career. So he started hanging out in libraries at Georgia State and the Atlanta College of Art, where he gobbled up what he could find on art history, theory and aesthetics. He pored over contemporary art magazines. He studied the careers of famous painters like Picasso and Dal'.
Success, Griffin realized, takes more than talent. It takes strategy and the development of a recognizable style. And it takes a tenacious drive to succeed. He learned that lesson well.
Many in the art world find it gauche when an artist openly reaches for commercial success. But Griffin has his eye on that prize -- unabashedly. Underneath the easygoing exterior is a competitor who is carefully crafting his career.
"I'm here to succeed," he says. "People hate it when you mix commerce and art. They feel cheated, like it's been cheapened, but commerce is a big part of what directs things. People coming from art school aren't prepared for competition and the business side of things, but the art world is a business, and it is competitive and it is full of sharks."
Griffin's first public exhibition was part of a group show held in 1996 at King Plow Center. Sampling an Insistent Beat featured artists influenced by hip-hop. Other group shows followed and recognition began to grow. A year later, he was selected to show in the Atlanta Biennial, a group show featuring hot new local artists at Nexus (now The Contemporary).
Griffin was wearing a painter's smock, seated at a fold-out table in the middle of a Publix store, trying to teach art to any kid that passed by, when he received the page that would change his life. He was working for a Fulton County neighborhood art program at the time, wondering if his career would ever get past the starving stage. Though he had no idea whom he was dialing, he returned the call on the store's pay phone. It was Vaknin Schwartz, the hottest new gallery in town; owners Uri Vaknin and Carolan Schwartz had seen his work in a group show at City Gallery East and wanted to represent him.
"At the time, it was incredible. It was a godsend. It was the first glimmer of hope," Griffin says.
Vaknin Schwartz launched Griffin's first solo show in 1999. It turned out to be just the kind of exposure he needed at just the right place and time. One year later, his work -- along with one other Vaknin Schwartz artist -- was hanging in New York's Whitney Museum as part of its renowned Biennial exhibition, which every two years features the country's most promising new, contemporary artists.
There is an "a-ha" moment the first time you look closely at Kojo Griffin's work. Once the initial seduction of colors and composition attract your gaze, you're confronted with the disturbing nature of the figures' actions -- a man holds a gun to another's head; a man videotapes two people engaged in sex; a man gives candy to a child. But, because Griffin consciously excludes any sense of place, race or time from his work, there is an ambiguity to the scenes that requires the viewer to decide for himself what has transpired.
"It's an equation ... like X plus Y times Z," Griffin says. "Each person who comes to the equation then has to finish it. They have to plug in whatever they want the constants to be. They define those variables for themselves. I put the structure in place."
One characteristic that stands out in Griffin's drawings and paintings is his use of anthropomorphized animals as surrogates for people.
"I wanted to be able to achieve a state where I could make something, and anybody could look at it and somehow put themselves in the place of the characters without thinking, 'Oh, this is about black people.' Or if I used black people and white people, it would become an issue of black people and white people," Griffin says.
He says the highest compliment he ever got was at his show in a Kansas City gallery, where a woman he was introduced to exclaimed with surprise, "I thought you were a woman!"
"I was like, 'Yes!, That's great!'" he says. "That means that basically, she had no concept of who or what the artist was when she viewed the work, which is perfect. That's exactly what I'm after."
Drawn to the conceptual elements of Griffin's work, Thelma Golden, curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, included his drawings and collage paintings in a group show last spring. It was at that show that a new term -- "post-black" -- was coined to describe African-American artists, including Griffin, who work outside the tenets of "black art," which typically explores racial issues or redefines black identity with positive imagery.
"When I first saw his work, I was seduced into what I perceived to be a pretty simplistic approach to images, and immediately was almost slapped in the face by the reality of those images once I got past the color and texture and brilliant way he has with collaging those canvases," Golden says.
She describes Griffin as somewhere between what the art world calls an "emerging artist" and one who is mid-career. "He's certainly emerged," she says. "He's an artist people are looking at and thinking about. But I also feel like Kojo has yet to make probably his best work. ... He has a command of his medium that is impressive for a young artist, but at the same time, he is a young artist."
Griffin believes the key to his growth as an artist doesn't lie in becoming a great painter as much as in getting better at "putting things together." His work "evolves like a language," he says. Early on, for example, he painted images of machine parts as his backgrounds. Then, he experimented with symbols from the I Ching and the Kabala. Now, he's on to electric circuitry. He's used each kind of background for a complex set of reasons: They contribute to his paintings' layers of reality and hint at the various ways to understand the universe.
As Griffin's art changes, however, his use of the backgrounds is changing, too. Where once the images dominated Griffin's early work, they now are more subdued.
"My aim now is more to remove some of the stuff and create a more orderly composition," he says.
Since receiving critical praise for drawings he made in South Africa 18 months ago, which reflected a sparser approach, Griffin moved in that direction with his paintings. Informed public opinion is something Griffin always has been tuned into. For instance, after his wife got him interested in fashion and design magazines, he lightened his palette to reflect the popular color schemes he found in those publications.
An artist who admits he relies on the palette of popular culture is practically committing heresy in the art world. There is a fine line between unfettered ambition and a drive to succeed, and some might say using the latest colors from the fashion world crosses that line.
Griffin says the colors are there only to get people to look at his work. His real aim is to get them to look beyond the colors and instead to think about what's actually happening in the painting itself.
"The initial attraction is sensual and emotional, but the concept is more important," he says. "I want it to be disarming."
Vaknin Schwartz gallery closed a year ago, but Uri Vaknin continued to represent Griffin until last fall, after their relationship had soured. (Vaknin did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) But Griffin wasn't a free agent for long. At last year's Armory Show, a contemporary art fair held in New York every February, Griffin was asked by the Manhattan gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash to hang his work in their booth. The gallery had built its reputation selling from private collections and representing the estates of artists like Willem de Kooning and Roy Lichtenstein, but it was ready to branch out. It was a new beginning for both gallery and artist. Griffin sold everything he had in the Armory Show, and Mitchell-Innes & Nash eventually signed on to represent him.
Throughout Griffin's two-day stay in New York, the high-hat treatment continued. His new gallery threw dinner parties in his honor at trendy restaurants, introduced him to collectors and hosted an opening-night reception.
"It's kind of a benchmark for how people look at me now," he says. "People are going out of their way for me and my ideas. You're like, wow! Finally! You finally feel appreciated."
Two days after Griffin returned to Atlanta, the World Trade Center was attacked. Like everyone, he was horrified. But he couldn't help worrying.
"I thought, 'Oh no, nobody's going to want to buy my paintings now,'" he recalls.
He needn't have worried. He sold every piece in the exhibition and made his biggest sale ever -- $18,000 for a 10-by-8-foot untitled mixed-media painting on wood panel featuring a man handing candy to a child.
Although Griffin isn't scheduled to show in Atlanta again until February 2003, at the new Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, he's getting plenty of far-flung attention. His work currently is in a group show in Milan, Italy, and will appear in upcoming shows slated for Boston and Monterey, Mexico. But Griffin still worries, especially about the next step.
"Sometimes when I think about it, I think, wow! I've made this thing out of thin air and somebody wants to buy it. That's really cool because it validates you. Not because of the money, but to know you can create something that moves people enough to make them part with their money. But mostly I just feel like, what's next?"
Talented artists work their whole lives and never get the breaks and recognition Kojo Griffin has received in just five years. For the lonely boy turned angry, introspective teenager turned scared young father, the vindication is mighty sweet. But contentment eludes him.
"I want to be accomplished to the point, when it's all said and done, that I've made a significant enough contribution to the history of art and that I was a part of that history. I'd like my ideas, my thoughts and my work to be ... considered critically important overall, regardless of my race and culture. I don't want to be relegated to being just a black guy who makes art."
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